Black Panther: Wakanda Forever(11/10/2022)

On August 28th 2022 we all learned the shocking news about the untimely passing of actor Chadwick Boseman, who had apparently managed to hide a cancer diagnosis from the public eye while finishing a handful of movies before taking a turn for the worse.  This was of course first and foremost a human tragedy and the cause of mourning, but of course for better or worse one of the first questions to cross many people’s minds was “what are they going to do about the sequel to Black Panther?”  Do they recast the role or do they make a Black Panther film without the Black Panther?  And even without this massive challenge to overcome there were probably other reasons to be a little worried about following up 2018’s Oscar nominated sensation, which was just generally going to be a hard act to follow.  It was a similar challenge faced by the film Wonder Woman 1984, which sort of displayed how a franchise that once seemed like a cultural touchstone “first” could suddenly just feel like another flawed superhero sequel once it was no longer a “first.”  But then the trailer dropped.  That advertisement, which I’ve seen in front of basically every movie I’ve seen since July, was a real master class in generating excitement and really pointed to how this thing could well thread the needle in terms of mourning Chadwick Boseman and his iconic character while also moving ahead with an interesting Wakandan story… of course trailers are by definition advertisements and you can’t always rely on them.  So I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I showed up on opening day to see Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever appears to be set several years after the last film and as it opens we learn that like the actor who plays him, T’Challa has died of an illness that is never specified and this cause of death does not come back as a plot point later on, it’s just a blunt fact at the opening to move us along.  Because Killmonger destroyed the last of the herb needed to create a new Black Panther in the previous movie there isn’t really a way to replace the fallen king.  Meanwhile, somewhere in the open ocean, a U.S. navy ship that’s attempting to find a vibranium deposit on the ocean floor suddenly finds itself under attack by a race of strange blue-skinned water breathing people who are able to sonically hypnotize people in to drowning themselves.  The rest of the world suspects Wakanda to be the culprit of this attack but the Wakandans first learn about it when the leader of these aquatic people, Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), slips past the Wakandan defenses to meet with Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) and queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett).  He says he thinks the Wakandans are responsible for the “surface dwellers” having almost found their underwater city because the Wakandans told them about vibranium, leading said surface dwellers to invent a vibranium detector that led the ship from the opening scene to them.  He tells them that for peace to exist between his people and the Wakandans they would need to go to the United States and kidnap the scientist responsible for the creation of the vibranium detector, a task that sure seems like it won’t be the end of all of this.

There’s no real getting around it, killing off a major character like T’Challa off screen like they had to here, is pretty awkward.  It may well have been the best choice out of several bad options given the circumstances, but I’m not going to say they 100% pulled it off.  If you lived under a rock and somehow went to this Black Panther sequel having not heard about Boseman’s real life passing you would almost certainly find that to be a very peculiar storytelling decision and you may similarly find the film’s highly reverent, almost wake-like tone going forward a little odd as well (some future Marvel fan watching this for the first time in 2070 may well find the exercise rather tedious).  But MCU movies, even more so than normal movies, do not exist in a vacuum and audiences probably did need this.  And I’ll also say, and this is a bit morbid, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever in some ways benefits from this turn of events because in many ways it kind of makes this a Marvel movie that isn’t actually a superhero movie for much of its runtime (because the actual superhero isn’t at the center of it).

That said, there’s a lot about this screenplay that’s kind of messy.  For one it’s kind of premised on this notion that the people of the world somehow view Wakanda as particularly vulnerable at that time because they don’t have a Black Panther, which is… odd.  Presumably Wakanda derives its strength from the fact that vibranium has made them technologically, economically, and militarily advanced… not because they had one superhero.  But the country that really seems to be making all the worst assessments here are the Talokans, who just seem to botch everything about this whole situation from the jump.  Ostensibly Namor wants an alliance with the Wakandans, which certainly seems like a natural partnership, but he gets off on the wrong foot pretty much from the beginning by immediately engaging in threats and ultimatums and demands rather than anything resembling good diplomacy.  They claim their ultimate goal is to conceal their existence from the wider world and specifically the United States but do so through violent actions that would almost certainly make them more of a target rather than less of one, at least if the CIA was halfway competent (which they plainly aren’t, there’s a whole subplot with Martin Freeman’s character that goes nowhere and feels like a remnant of an earlier draft of the screenplay) while also getting the Wakandans to kidnap an American national despite seemingly being able to do so themselves.

Of course the Talokans here aren’t just fish people, they’re origins and iconography plainly make them an analog for the indigenous people of Mesoamerica if spared from the legacy of colonialism in the same way that Wakanda is an analog for the African culture when removed from the its legacy of colonial rule and I think the ultimate goal is to make this an extended metaphor about the way different sets of marginalized communities interact with one another and how all too often they find themselves pitted against one another instead of working together for a common goal.  Unfortunately I’m not sure the execution of this quite works.  One way to do this would have been to make the CIA, or barring that some sort of supervillain, the true villain in all of this who’s manipulating the two nations into their conflict.  In some ways that would be the easy way out, but the movie doesn’t really go there, the western powers end up being almost implausibly ignorant about the whole conflict for much of the runtime.  The other way is to make the conflict a result of bad actions on one or both sides that lead to this conflict, as tends to happen when major powers have conflicting interest, but I’m not sure Ryan Coogler quite had it in him to make Wakanda even somewhat responsible for this whole mess through their own malfeasance so he ends up making Namor quite the hothead and puts most of the responsibility for all this and the Talokans even though the movie does seem to want us to sympathize with them more than they really do.

Namor’s casus belli against the United States is that they had the gall to search for natural resources on what they had assumed to be uninhabited international waters leading to a rather disproportional retaliation that leaves a whole lot of innocent workers dead.  He then more or less blames the Wakandans for this for making the wider world aware that said resource exists, something they would have had no reason to think would affect anyone aside from themselves given that they don’t even know Talokan exists and then later for engaging in a rescue operation that’s pretty plainly justified.  So, really Wakanda is basically blameless in all this and I’m not sure they even really have that legitimate a beef with the rest of the surface world and that just makes this whole conflict seem like the act of a super villain, which I guess it is, but the movie doesn’t really act like that.  Midway through the movie we get something of an origin story for the Talokans which I think the movie expects to go a lot further in justifying their temperament, additionally once it’s shown I think the movie expects us to be a lot more wowed by their underwater society than we actually are in part because our look at it is really brief and cursory and in part just because it doesn’t really pull off the vision.  DC’s Atlantis did the whole concept more vividly and frankly James Cameron probably doesn’t need to worry too much about this movie eating his lunch once he takes us to Pandora’s oceans next month.

However, whatever shortcomings this script has, I will give it credit for at the very least not being a total slave to the MCU formula.  I don’t want to oversell this and make it seem like it’s some kind of revolutionary bit of storytelling that totally breaks the Marvel mold because it most certainly isn’t and there are other MCU movies like Eternals that have gone even further in subverting the tropes, but Coogler has clearly been given some latitude that other MCU projects haven’t and when it does get involved in crossover stuff it does it in ways that mostly feel natural and it’s not an MCU film that feels like it needs to insert one-liners into every page (which isn’t to say its humorless).  The action scenes here are a bit of a mixed bag with some of the sequences here maybe working a bit better in conception than in execution.  The visual effects work is generally stronger than they are in the first film (which seems to have been the victim of some of Marvel’s famous effects rush crunches) but they aren’t “next level shit” if you will and I’m not sure that these large scale CGI heavy battle scenes are quite Ryan Coogler’s forte, but the costumes and art direction remain very strong and there are some standout sequences that do work quite well.

What really saves this movie ultimately are the characters.  The original Black Panther is almost certainly the only MCU hero origin movie that had a strong enough supporting cast to have allowed them to carry sequel without the central hero.  Had, say, Benedict Cumberbatch been hit by a bus sometime after making the first Doctor Strange it is highly unlikely that anyone would have even considered making a sequel focused around the half formed side characters played by Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, and Chiwetel Ejiofor but here we actually do have a pretty impressive cast and world to fall back on.  Interestingly this also means that this follow-up to Black Panther is a rather female dominated film with Letitia Wright’s Shuri ultimately becoming the film’s protagonist by the end but with Angela Bassett’s Ramonda and Danai Gurira’s Okoye essentially feeling like co-leads for much of the film and Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia eventually also playing a big role and Winston Duke’s M’Baku also having an expanded role.  Dominique Thorne also comes into the movie in winning form and while I have some misgivings about his character’s arc Tenoch Huerta Mejía is quite the casting “find” in the role of Namor and he kind of elevates that character beyond what’s there on the page.  Really the only true weak link is Martin Freeman, who does the best he can with what feels like a really forced sub-plot that doesn’t really work.

So, when coming up with a final judgement on Black Panther: Wakanda Forever I’m a bit conflicted.  I definitely think it’s a step down from the first movie and that it won’t have the same crossover appeal to people who aren’t normally interested in superhero movies.  It manages to feel distinct from some Marvel movies simply by being something of an ensemble piece but that can also be a double edged swords.  There are certainly highlights to the film that really work and it carries over a lot of the first film’s craft triumphs, but its screenplay is perhaps not as complex as it could have been or wants to be and I just kind of feel like it could have been a lot more if certain things had been handled a bit better on the script level.  Frankly I suspect that the rush to re-shape the movie after Boseman’s death while maintaining a release date took a toll on the movie.  All that having been said, I do think the movie has more than enough going for it to make it enjoyable despite the flaws.  The film’s rather lengthy 161 minute runtime actually flies by pretty quickly and the scenes where the film stops to mourn Boseman and his character are in fact pretty affecting, and even if I don’t think they pull it off there is intrigue to be found in this conflict with Namor.  So I’m going to ultimately say I like this more than a lot of my complaining in this review would suggest, but those reservations are deep.
***1/2 out of Five

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